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Battle of the Atlantic

German U-boats [derived from the German word "Unterseeboot" meaning 'under waterboat'] had been the most serious menace to Great Britain in the First World War, posing a constant threat to the Atlantic supply lines of the Allies and, despite advances in anti-submarine tactics and countermeasures, had been a significant factor in the German war effort.

Karl Doenitz, a U-Boat commander in World War I, lost his submarine, was captured and held by the British. Germany had been stripped of all her submarines as a result of the Versailles Treaty that ended the Great War. With the U-boat arm destroyed, he remained in the navy serving on surface ships. Known for his organizational and leadership skills, Captain Doenitz was appointed by Hitler to head the newly revived U-boat arm in 1935 under Admiral Raeder, head of the German Naval High Command. Following the Anglo-German Naval Agreement of October 1935, Germany was allowed tobuild up to 45% of the British submarine force.

As Joyce E. King noted, Doenitz's "operational genius guided the U-boats to their peak of success in World War II. He began with nothing and molded a force of over 800 U-boats and 38,000 submariners. He saw his U-boats in a new way, and he broke out of the old concepts of World War I toemploy them as never before. He valued concentration, speed, deception, and heeffectively altered previous methods used to achieve these principles. His creativeconcept of operations built the U-boats into an almost tide-turning war instrument for the Axis powers."

When war with Britain came in 1939, Doenitz had only 22 U-boats capable of operating in the Atlantic. Admiral Raeder immediately shifted the naval building priority entirely to submarines. Throughout the war, he was unremitting in his demands to his chain of command for more and better quality U-boats, weapons, and technology.

Doenitz was committed to an intensive training program designed to confront his crewwith the same conditions they would face in wartime. He also used his training program to promote and sustain morale in this unique,demanding service; imputing to his men a sense of purpose, direction, and motivation. He made them feel part of a vital team that was destined to do great things.

German submarine experience against convoys during World War I proved that individual submarines could not defeat convoys. Doenitz believed that the submarine wolfpacks were most efficiently directed from headquarters. Submarines would communicate directly with headquarters, reporting weather and enemy convoy sightings. With limited sonarcapability and without radar or other long-range sensors, the U-boat was inherently a poorsearch platform. In order to minimize signal traffic and lessen chances of detection, submarines would not communicate with each other. Headquarters would assimilate the data and pass directions to each submarine up to the point of attack. Based on orders from the command center, each would assemble from his station on the patrol line to the optimum position for striking the convoy. Then, each submarine commanding officer would execute the attack as he saw fit, in the spirit of decentralized execution.

On 3 September 1939, when German troops surged across the Polish border and World War II was ignited, the German Navy had only fifty-seven U-boats. Just twenty-two of these (the 626-ton Type VII and 1,032-ton Type IX) were really operational. The rest were smaller types useful only for training or coastal work. Kommodore Karl Doenitz (promoted to Rear Admiral and Flag Officer, U-boats, or Befehlshaber der U-boote, in October) had stated prior to the outbreak of war that at least 90 submarines would be needed in the Atlantic and 300 needed overall. Hitler (believing the war would be short) did not authorize a building program for some time.

Writing in late 1942, Rear Admiral Kurt Aßmann, head of the German Kriegsmarine's Historical Office, authored an article entitled "Transformations in the Conduct of War at Sea" ("Wandlungen der Seekriegsführung"). In that piece, Aßmann argued the naval power of Germany had finally overcome Allied maritime superiority by pursuing its new strategy of economic warfare, called cruiser warfare (Kreuzerkrieg). The prime agent for the execution of that transformation of naval warfare would be the German submarine force, its U-boats. Responding to the German experiences of the First World War, Aßmann argued that the National Socialist state would win the Second World War by better using its naval technology, in spite of its overall naval weakness. Since the U-boats of the Second World War were essentially improvements of their First World War predecessors, the prime change in German warfare would be in its methods, in this case its submarine doctrine.

The Allies suffered catastrophic losses to their merchantfleets from October 1939 to May 1943, from German U-boat attacks, climaxed by the greatest single month of convoy losses experienced in March 1943. Although history recorded Germany's ultimate defeat inthe Battle of the Atlantic, these successful operations providedconsiderable reason to believe Germany was on the brink of aresounding victory. The most difficult decision made by Doenitz during the war was the withdrawal of U-boats from the Atlantic. He was unable to reconstitute his U-boats with sufficient speed to replace his losses. As late as March 1943, success was still being achieved in the Atlantic. However, when 31 submarines were lost in May 1943, he withdrew them from that theater of operations, as the cost and risk had become too high. Out of the 39,000 submariners, 28,000 were killed in action and 5,000 were taken as POWs.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:54:56 ZULU